Notoriously reclusive “Simpsons” writer John Swartzwelder revealed how the show got around the censors in its early days in an extremely rare interview.
Despite his secretive nature, Swartzwelder is a very popular figure among diehard “Simpsons” fans as he is credited with writing fifty-nine episodes of the comedy, more than any other single writer in the show’s history.
After getting his start in advertising before pivoting to the world of TV on “Saturday Night Live,” Swartzwelder became one of “The Simpsons’” most beloved writers and promptly shied away from the public spotlight.
However, he granted an interview with noted comedian interviewer Mike Sacks for The New Yorker in which he opened up about his career and the bafflingly unregulated early days of America’s favorite animated comedy.
“Thanks to the deal [executive producer] Jim Brooks had, Fox executives couldn’t meddle in ‘The Simpsons’ in any way, though we did get censor notes,” Swartzwelder explained. “The executives weren’t sent advance copies of the scripts and they couldn’t attend read-throughs, even though they very much wanted to. All we had to do was please ourselves.”
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He added: “This is a very dangerous way to run a television show, leaving the artists in charge of the art, but it worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for thirty years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.”
Despite the unprecedented freedom the creatives like him had on the show, he and the early writers still prided themselves on vaulting their only hurdle — network censors. Swartzwelder explained that they managed to get some of the most violent and gory things on air by way of Springfield’s own cartoon-within-a-cartoon, “Itchy & Scratchy.”
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“The obvious example of this would be ‘The Itchy & Scratchy Show’ [the violent cat-and-mouse children’s cartoon within ‘The Simpsons’]. We could show horrendous things to the children at home, as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first,” he explained. “Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!’”
Swartzwelder, whose episode writing credits include beloved episodes such as “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Dog of Death,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Homie the Clown,” “Bart Gets an Elephant,” “Homer’s Enemy,” and “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment,” left the show roughly eighteen years ago.
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Still, his presence looms large over the show as the revered mind behind “Swartzweldian” lines like “To alcohol. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” When asked to reflect on the impact his writing had on “The Simpsons,” he noted that he’s pleased to see writers getting their due.
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“I am pleased by the attention,” he concluded. “‘The Simpsons’ did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on TV shows. When I was growing up, we looked at the actors’ names, and maybe the director, but that’s it.
“Now a whole generation of viewers not only knows about writers, they’re wondering what we’re really like in real life. And they want to know what we’re thinking. And look through our windows. That’s progress, of a sort, and we have ‘The Simpsons’ to thank for it.”